Great Great Grandmothers and Their Stories
The story of two great great grandmothers can be told in many ways. Dorothy Jeanette was born 1 October 1900 and Opal Marie was born 22 January 1909. The pictures you see were taken at the same instant, the first in 1913 and the second in 1992. Dorothy lived to 96 years and Opal lived to 101 years. Each of their stories can be told separately or together. At age 21, newly married to Walter L. Lund, Dorothy moved to the small town of Zearing Iowa, to live most of her life on the farm she and her husband owned and in this town she lived to her passing in 1995. At age 31, Opal married Walter Beddoe and moved to Denver, Colorado, and lived there until in her last few years, she moved to be cared for by her living sons in California, where she passed away in 2010.
They lived very different lives. Dorothy was an expert organ player and played for her church every weekend and at all the functions. She loved music and her children and nearby family, visiting often. She did not pursue education beyond high school. Opal attended college in York, Nebraska (York College) and taught English French and drama in schools in Orleans, Nebraska, after credentialing. During WW II, she worked for the U.S. government chemical warfare department. She worked as a florist, United Bank of Denver trust dept., headed the Clearing House of Denver Banks, and worked for the Denver Convention Bureau. A member of many clubs, she was very active with the Denver-Columbine Pilots' Club. She was a deacon in the Corona Presbyterian Church.
With lives that varied so greatly, what common theme can be found to justify telling the stories contemporaneously? They were sisters, weren't they? Well, not biologically. Dorothy was adopted in her first year by Charls Byron and Ella Mae Mitchell of York, Nebraska. Opal Marie was born to the couple in 1909. Yet, over the ensuing years, they remain as close as sisters can be. If I were to write their histories contemporaneously, how might I tie them together beyond sisterhood. Perhaps the letters they wrote one another and saved would reflect their separate life stories and what they shared.
History and Genealogy
Choices We Make as Authors of Genealogical History.
History is written by people. Historians have a code of ethics taught within history courses concerning how to write history. History textbooks from my early education (K-12 was 1953 through 1966) taught that only Christopher Columbus discovered America. In the details, I read that he discovered a populated island south of what came to be known as Florida. Modernly, we know that Vikings, peoples of the South Pacific, Chinese, and others visited the North American continent and left structural and written evidence of their presence long before 1492. What of the indigenous peoples living on the continent? The Native Americans and peoples from nearly forty thousand years ago discovered the continent and created homes long before the Vikings.
After a war, it is said that the history of the conflict is written by the winners. Generally, that has been true but, investigators from a variety of professions have discovered histories written by the defeated or colonized. It was after the so-called war involving the United States of America in Vietnam that resulted in numerous books written about the war by North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese, Australians, Koreans and Americans. The early memoirs by North Vietnamese were heavily slanted politically but, with time, some were published that were less biased. Hundreds, if not thousands, of American combat veterans have returned to Vietnam to visit the battlefields upon which they fought and their comrades and friends, brothers, died or were maimed. Some readers might have read We were Soldiers Once … and Young, by then Lieutenant Colonel Harold “Hal” G. Moore and journalist Joseph “Joe” L. Galloway. This work describes combat in Vietnam probably better than any other. Years after the American involvement came to an end, retired General Moore returned to the Ia Drang valley and he visited with his opposing commander. They shared a meal, drinks and their stories and memories. A second book was written: We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam, again written by Moore and Galloway.
In a broader view of the political reasoning that put Moore and his men on the ground to fight, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara wrote an apologetic memoir that described how decisions were arrived at in the halls of power in the Capitol. While I was in high school between 1963 and 1966, I watched television in black and white and read news accounts of men only a few years older than me dying by the week in numbers of five hundred to six hundred, week after week. McNamara’s two books, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and Argument Without End in Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, a recalcitrant McNamara told of his thoughts and feelings in hindsight of a war that perhaps should not have been fought, but which saw more than 53,000 Americans dead and millions injured. I avoided the draft by voluntarily enlisting, soon to be followed by my older brother. It was the amazing era of the 1960s with flower children, free love, the Beatles, the assassination of a President and his Senator brother, John F. and Robert Kennedy, and ended with the humiliation of a President, Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in embarrassment but had been a popular President. The politics of the era were twisted in Machiavellian expediencies, the crimes of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, and the Plumbers, not a rock band but a group of dedicated men who flaunted the laws of the country they had sworn to protect against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
In the genealogical investigations into the personalities, politics, religious choices, and the choices made by our ancestors, we sometimes run across one who, by happenstance, was notorious in his infamy. Do we include the one who raised the flag showing the skull and crossbones? The one who committed murder, suicide, or worse? The one who spent decades behind bars in a prison for crimes which would never be considered by the modern generation? Do we avoid the story because of a fear of the one who might believe in the clichѐ, like father, like son, or that criminals beget criminals? Having a few of these in temporally distant generations is of no real consequence, but it is interesting. If the person so described lives today, or his progeny live today, one must consider defamation and public disclosure of a private fact as torts for which the writer and publisher might be sued. Like all other rules, exceptions exist so don’t believe that the truth is always an absolute defense.
If you know that a sibling or ancestor did something, or was investigated for or accused of, doing something that might be an embarrassment to other family members, will you avoid the writing about the event? Or do you boldly go forward where no man has gone before and risk the consequences of your choice? The consequences can be serious or imaginary. A relative might file a lawsuit, might shun you for the rest of your life, or might take the issue to other relatives and multiply the ramifications. On the other hand, nothing may happen. A solution is to ask what they think. This may produce consequences, as well – or may not. Once you have the knowledge, you are going to have to make a choice at some time. From a historical perspective, the actions of an ancestor from a past generation, is arguably mere history – whether good or bad. The purist would argue for inclusion, and would write the story as it was reported. Others might argue for inclusion but allow for some manipulation of the facts to lessen its apparent impact upon the perceived family reputation. Some would argue that a brief footnote, vaguely stated, is desirable.
If your ancestor is Benedict Arnold (the spy who nearly vanquished the colonialists during the American Revolution), you might see if one or more of his descendants will discuss the dilemma with you – if you can identify one. If your ancestor was John Anthony Walker, a U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer who spied, and persuaded his son to spy, for the Soviet Union, what would you do? Between December, 1967, and May, 1995, he and his U.S. Navy enlistee son, sold top secret and very harmful information to the Soviets. He resides in a Federal prison in Terra Haute, Indiana, suffers from diabetes and throat cancer and is scheduled for his first parole hearing May 20, 2015. Another spy, against whom Walker provided evidence, was Jerry Whitworth, who was sentenced to 365 years incarceration. Are you related to him? No less notorious or infamous might be FBI Counter-terrorism chief Robert Hanssen, who was arrested in 2001, before the 9/11 attack. He resides in Federal prison in Colorado without the possibility of parole. His father was a respected Chicago police officer. He leaves a wife and six children to bear the burden of his treachery.
What if you, as the author of your family’s genealogical history book, have an event in your past which you would rather have never occurred? Have you even done something embarrassing and been caught at it? Suppose it was criminal activity and you were convicted and served time in custody for the crime, are you willing to publish an honest account and assume the risks of familial reaction? What happened to forgiveness? Does forgiveness for past real, perceived or false wrongs in the past play a part in the decision? If your family has forgiven you for your wrong and taken you into their homes, what will their reaction be when you publish a family history book describing the events and their forgiveness? These are serious concerns and must be contemplated and reflected upon and a decision made. Someone will not be happy with the decision, no matter what it is.
Heroes usually dislike publicity. Will publishing a story of heroism upset a relative? It is easy for someone uninvolved to say, “To heck with what they think, the truth is the truth,” but this attitude does little to show thoughtfulness and compassion for those involved. However, if that is your choice, I wish you the best.
Historical Events and Life.
To write your family history effectively, you are going to become somewhat of a master of the historical events for each generation in the places and times of the lives of your ancestors. For contemporary family, where were they and what were they doing on September 11th, 2001? The emotions and thoughts surrounding these events are important historically and may have changed the course of one or more of the lives of your relatives. For those alive in the mid-1940s, where were they and what were they doing on December 1st, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii? One of my relatives was living there and her father was at sea on a destroyer accompanying the USS Enterprise, a carrier. Her story is important to the family history.
I was sitting in a history class in my freshman year of high school on November 22, 1962, when a red-faced and clearly upset girl came into the classroom and walked up to the teacher and handed her a note, The teacher paled as she read the note, handed it back to the girl and thanked her. The girl left hurriedly. The teacher was distraught, nervous and her voice quavered ash she announced, “The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, has been assassinated in Dallas Texas.” Diane Presley, a brown haired and cute girl in the class, burst into tears. A few others began crying and a few asked to be excused to go to the bathroom. It was just before school classes ended for the day. He had been shot at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, and the two hour difference plus time for the news to discovered he died from his mortal wounds made it a bit later for us to hear. Everyone was very quiet. I wanted to get home and listen to the news. Who shot him? Where? What exactly happened? Oddly, I did not feel as upset as my friends and I wondered about that. I remember thinking of his promise that we would go to the moon in that decade and I wondered, when he was murdered, if we would still do that.
I was glued to the television the next few days and kept the newspapers from those days – still have them! I was watching when Lee Harvey Oswald was short by Jack Ruby. I was watching when Geraldo interviewed Mr. Zapruder about his film and showed it to the public the first time. I was watching days later when President Johnson chose to escalate our troop involvement in Vietnam. The destiny of many of the youth of America had changed on November 22nd, 1963, and many of them did not realize it for weeks or months.
Ancestor involvement, exposure, and choices made during their lives as historical events unfolded around them, both small events and life changing events, changed the goals of the American government. Why did your ancestors make the decisions they made? What were the consequences? Who survived and who died? The way I deal with the history that effected my ancestors is to create a detailed story of pertinent history as it related to my ancestors. Then each story was transposed to a 3X5 card and annotations were added reflecting locations, dates, and how it affected my ancestor(s). Reactions of family members, if known or reflected in postcards or letters, were added to the timeline. The details are important because character was built upon the men and women who volunteered to work to support the war effort. Unlike Korea, Vietnam, and other wars since, the nation truly went to war in World War II. Parades honoring the returning victorious heroes were held, inapposite to the spitting and hateful reception we saw returning from Vietnam. Your readers should be made aware of what affect these events had on the men and women and their families. I am not suggesting I would bemoan or whine about the reception when I came home from Vietnam – I am suggesting that how it occurred is a part of history and should be incorporated.
The Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in which our Marines fought, the Louisiana Purchase, the purchase of the Alaska territory, The sinking of the Titanic and many lesser known events, affected our ancestors. The history of America and the world occurred while our ancestors lived, and those stories should be told.
Movies, literature, the enactment of laws (e.g., prohibition) and other co-existing occurrences are important to your family history. It may be very important depending upon cause and effect. Consider these things and when they are appropriate, include them as appropriate. Don’t fictionalize the events or your ancestors choices. Confounding your readers with inaccurate story telling will wound, perhaps mortally, your credibility as a family history author.
Using Fiction Techniques in Creative Nonfiction for the Family History Book
Since 2005, when I began teaching memoir writing, I taught that using the fiction techniques used in the personal essay, modern memoir and autobiography or biography, is acceptable and enhances the prose with the result of a more interesting, emotive, and dramatic work. It appears that some professional genealogists and family hit=story writers take the same view, I am not claiming any sort of rule breaking discovery, Rather, I am merely availing myself of the opportunity to note that some, better than me, concur.
For example, when I read my copy of Creative Nonfiction – True stories, well told, Issue 41, Spring, 2011, I found a wonderful article titled ”Under the Umbrella – Family History Narrative: Genealogy Finds Creative Nonfiction,” written by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, “… a certified genealogist and co-owner of Warren, Carmack & Associates, a genealogical research, writing and publishing firm. She is the author of ‘You Can Write Your Family History,’ eight additional genealogical guides and seven family history narratives. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Writer’s Digest, Family Tree Magazine and numerous genealogical publications” (Creative Nonfiction 66).
I was elated to find that a professional genealogist and family history writer argued for the use of these creative nonfiction techniques. Carmack mentioned that “…in 1976, Alex Haley published ‘Roots,’ a fictionalized version of his ancestry [which] … sparked an interest in genealogy for the common person, descended from everyday, working-class folk [and] … inspired genealogists to consider writing family history in the same storyteller fashion – while keeping the narrative true to the documented facts.” I disagree that “Roots” acted as a spark for the “common person” to conduct genealogical investigations. Between 1974 and 1986, I was conducting genealogical investigations into my family’s ancestry, writing about it, and encouraging others to do the same. I connected a man who had been abandoned as a six-year-old child in 1957 in San Diego with his sisters and mother, whose names had changed a few times, and with little information about them. I used my investigative skills from my law enforcement career and applied various techniques to the search.
I did not read “Roots” and did not watch the movie. I was connected during the period of 1974 through 1986 with numerous other amateur genealogists who were using every means at their disposal to investigate their genealogical histories, within the United States and in Europe. I have an uncle who was Missing In Action in World War II in the Pacific Theater when the C-47B transport upon which he was a passenger crashed during a storm in or near the Bay of Bengal between Rangoon, Burma, and Calcutta, India. I obtained the investigative reports which listed the crew, all passengers and the 50 odd boxes of American dead remains he, as a Graves Registration Officer recovering the remains for return to the U.S. I posted the list everywhere I could find an opportunity on veterans’ web sites and on genealogy web sites, trying to find families with relatives who were, alive or dead, lost on that aircraft.
Six years after my first postings, I received an e-mail from Lisa Phillips, an amazingly energetic lady in Maine who was related to one of the deceased whose remains were on board the aircraft. She was excited to find the list and she began a crusade that today is a national organization representing the families of WW II lost, which organization actively seeks the actions of the government to find and return these lost American heroes. My contribution to the effort, much smaller, was to create a web site, www.miac47burmawwii.org, which provides brief stories of some of the men lost, including my uncle, 1stLt Donald C. Dutton. Through the use of the correspondence method of searching, the pre-Internet methods available, I found a half-sister who had twice married and thus was difficult to find from her surname changes, as well as the young daughter of my MIA uncle (actually a few years older than me) whom I had difficulty finding because other relatives who knew her had passed away. We united and now enjoy a friendship.
While not seeking formal certification, I studied genealogy books as quickly as they were published and have amassed a library, with well turned, underlined, highlighted and dog-eared pages, several with dozens of annotated post-its sticking out throughout, and began writing vignettes and stories based upon the events in the lives of ancestors. I learned to use creative nonfiction techniques early and dramatized, staying true to the known facts, events to make them interesting for my kin to read, especially grandchildren. It is my opinion that the so-called common person, who has not sought genealogy certification because they view it as unnecessary if you have the skills and knowledge, number far greater than certified genealogists and produce written works as reliable and well written as the professionals. Some of these common professional genealogists, uncertified, have achieved as much if not more in many cases, that those who sought certification, primarily for pecuniary reasons or to obtain a recognized title to use to prove their skills in genealogy.
As a retired police officer (1974-1990) and lawyer since 1982, I understand rules of evidence and proof, although genealogy rules are less rigorous than those in the legal arena. Please do not misunderstand my position: I support and encourage those who conduct genealogical investigations and write reports or other works as a result of their investigations, to seek formal education in genealogy and learn from certified professional like Ms. Carmack and others. If one is going to create a small business in genealogy, then the formal education and certification is a virtual necessity since, with the advent of the Internet and greater access than ever to documents and images worldwide, understanding the rules governing reporting and rules of evidence used in modern genealogy, is a necessity and very beneficial. However, a person can become equally skilled and never operate a genealogy business, focusing instead on family and friends of family, choosing not to seek certification. Writers have been using creative nonfiction techniques for the telling of true stories in personal essays, memoirs and family histories for decades, never becoming certified in genealogy.
So where did the two meet? Somewhere in the past, in works published privately and in memoirs that address several generations of a family. Some writers have chosen a specific slant to their personal essays or memoirs. For example, Scott Russell Sanders, a prolific and wonderful author, wrote Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys and The Inheritance of Tools, telling about the relationships between fathers and sons. Carmack became a genealogist before or contemporaneously while becoming a writer and learning the writing craft. She is working on a M.F.A. from National University and earned a B.A. in English from Regis University. Unlike most genealogists, she seems to seek the public life, which is a boon to all genealogists because she brings a knowledgeable and charismatic face to the public for genealogy. I applaud her efforts, skills and her desire to make genealogy and writing accessible to many.
In her article, she professes to have dubbed (with a colleague) what emerged in the late 1990s a genre when writers of family history began using creative nonfiction techniques, “family history narrative,” which to her “… began with a dramatic event or life-altering decision in an ancestor’s life … [or] … other devices, a narrative arc, scenes, imagery and metaphors – to bring an ancestor’s story to life on the page” (Creative Nonfiction 66-7). Carmack refers to Julie Foster Van Camp’s Searching for Ichabod: His Eighteenth Century Diary Leads Me Home, as a family history memoir.
Carmack accurately points out that family histories, whether we call them histories, narratives, memoirs, or something else, “… have in common … meticulous documentation, using genealogical standards of proof, and the Chicago Manual of Style for writing and citation. She pointedly remarks that when a family history writer qualifies the facts written about, terms of disclaimer are used, such as probably, may have, perhaps, likely, almost certainly, and many others. Creative nonfiction writers often preface their work with a disclaimer: This story is based upon well documented facts and knowledge about conversations which the author overheard or were gleaned from a few who were there and gave their best, though imperfect, recollection. The story I write is one in which I take dramatic license but adhere as closely as possible to what seems most likely to have happened. To those with different knowledge, I offer my apologies for any inaccuracies but my writing is my best recollection and compilation of the recollections of others.
I suggest that one should not merely place qualifiers constituting inferred disclaimers within the story but, utilize the standard practiced by most creative nonfiction writers and incorporate a clear disclaimer separate from the written story so that readers cannot be potentially misled because a qualifier appears in one part but not another. Respectfully, just as Carmack is uncertain whether Van Camp’s work is a family history narrative or a family history memoir, a single descriptive term, such as narrative, is less accurate than other possibilities. Narrative, for example, is less likely to include setting, narration, dialogue, monologue, or even poetry. Rather, each work must, as in literature, stand on its own and withstand literary criticism which will categorize it as a personal essay, memoir, history, story, creative nonfiction work, ot another apt description.
As graduate students discover during their studies for a MA in Literature or a MFA or PhD, word choices used to describe the works of others should be used with caution and coining a term or phrase is likely to be met with literary criticism and discussion. However, the application of creative nonfiction techniques will, without doubt, transform the nature of family history works into new literary categories.